March 27, 2008

Il fallut que j'accusasse: the morphology of serial murder

According to John Lichfield ("Ogre of Ardennes' stands trial for girls' murders", The Independent, 3/26/2008), Michel Fourniret, who "is accused of seven murders of girls and young women and seven sexual assaults in a 16-year reign of terror in France and Belgium between 1987 and 2003",

is a man who likes to play mind games with investigators and appear more cultured than he really is. He is a keen chess player, who talks, and writes, in complex, verbose but inaccurate French, with unnecessary subjunctive verbs and sub-clauses.

Lichfield is not the first to accuse Fourniret of linguistic peculiarities. In fact, this seems to have become part of the standard journalistic narrative. However, I haven't been able to find other evidence that the accused killer's usage is "inaccurate" as opposed to old-fashioned and excessively formal. Thus we learn from  "Michel Fourniret : 'l'Ogre des Ardennes'", Le Monde, 3/11/208 that

En prison, il a beau écouter Mozart, relire André Dhôtel, citer Rilke et parler en utilisant subjonctif et plus-que-parfait, il a beau mettre un point d'honneur à corriger méticuleusement ses procès-verbaux, son sadisme au petit pied fait de lui le coupable idéal d'une kyrielle d'autres meurtres non élucidés.

Although in prison he listened to Mozart, re-read André Dhôtel, cited Rilke and spoke using the subjunctive and the pluperfect; although he made it a point of honor to meticulously edit his statements; his small-time sadism made him the ideal suspect for a litany of other unsolved murders.

And back on 7/4/2004, Le Monde ran an article by Ariane Chemin under the headline "Michel Fourniret, récits criminels à l'imparfait du subjonctif" ("Michel Fourniret, crime stories in the imperfect subjunctive"), which amplifies the generalization a bit, and gives an actual example:

Michel Fourniret (…) adore en effet les mots. Ou plus exactement la langue française. Il l’écrit sans aucune faute d’orthographe. Il utilise un français, suranné et ampoulé, plein de circonvolutions, de subjonctifs et de plus-que-parfaits.

Indeed Michel Fourniret (...) loves words. Or more exactly, the French language. He writes it without any spelling mistakes. He uses a French that is outdated and turgid, full of circumlocutions, of subjunctives and pluperfects.

Le moins que l’on puisse écrire, c'est que le Français a une haute opinion de lui-même. Il a des lettres, ce monsieur. Et il aime les faire valoir, tout particulièrement aux yeux des enquêteurs belges. Il trousse le récit de ses viols et de ses étranglements dans des imparfaits du subjonctif: « Il fallut bien que je l’enterrasse. »

The least that one can say is that this Frenchman has a high opinion of himself. He's well educated, this fellow. And he loves to emphasize it, especially in front of the Belgian investigators. He frames the tale of his rapes and his stranglings in imperfect subjunctives: "It was indeed needful that I should bury her."

Chemin presents a picture of someone who flaunts fussy and outdated forms like the simple past (the preterite, or passé historique, e.g. fallut) and the imperfect subjunctive (e.g. enterrasse), but I don't see any support for Lichtfield's claim that Fourniret's French is "inaccurate". (If you have some more extensive quotations from Fourniret, especially if you can also provide an explication de texte, please let me know.)

I'm not sure how this case fits with the French Ministry of Education's recent initiative to reduce urban violence by more instruction in grammar and vocabulary. I'll just observe that enterrasse actually is an imperfect subjunctive, suggesting that French journalists, unlike their English-language counterparts, are still in control of the traditional terminology of morphology.

[Tip of the chapeau to Jeremy Hawker.]

[David Creber wrote with a plausible suggestion:

The idea that Fourniret's French might be 'bad' could be a mistake in translation; someone presuming that 'imparfait' meant 'inaccurate' and not a past continuous aspect.

Similarly, Tim Leonard suggested that

the simplest explanation for Lichtfield's claim that Fourniret's French is "inaccurate" is that he thought "imperfect" meant "not quite correct."

This would certainly be consistent with the command of grammatical terminology among anglophone journalists (and other intellectuals) in general.]

[Alex Price writes:

Fourniret’s French might not be “inaccurate,” but his use of imperfect subjunctive forms is, at the very least, inappropriate, and I think, to give Lichfield the benefit of the doubt, that is what he might have been getting at. (The problem is that “inappropriate French” is too vague. People might interpret it to mean crude language.) The use of the imperfect subjunctive is so inappropriate today, in almost any context other than a comic one, that its use amounts to an error in register: the form may be accurate, but its usage inaccurate. As for French journalists correctly identifying the grammatical form, that’s not surprising. French children still receive plenty of training in grammar, despite the concerns of various politicians. More to the point, the imperfect of the subjunctive is notorious and the subject of many jokes, mostly because it sounds funny. For example, the ending –asse, which you get with –er verbs recalls the –asse ending of many informal, often pejorative nouns: vinasse (bad wine), tignasse (bad hair), paperasse (bureaucratic forms, red tape), connasse (stupid woman), and so on.


[More here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 27, 2008 07:06 AM